England’s famed author Jane Austen loved to tease her readers. In her novels she placed her heroes and heroines, who mostly displayed a keen though delicate sensibility well balanced by common sense, in a setting that suggested a cultivated ambiance of politeness.
Strict codes of behaviour were employed in her society of grace and manners, where books of etiquette dictated social graces and ladies were encouraged to ‘assiduously cultivate a soft tone of voice, and a courteous mode of expression for
Goodness’ self we better see,
When dressed by gentle courtesy
Jane Austen during her lifetime moved easily from the socially competitive elegant drawing rooms in the city to the robust attractions of the country and period’s most popular spa and seaside resorts.
Her family’s social connections allowed it.
Along the way they established high standards for excellence in taste and style, which were well recognised by Jane and her peers, and most especially by the burgeoning middle classes who wished to emulate them.
They developed a capacity for poised, well-informed discourse on a variety of subjects including love and friendship.
Their lives were meant to be all about quality and modesty. However there is not much evident when we meet the strikingly handsome widow, Lady Susan Vernon, the main character in one of Jane Austen’s early novellas (quite the latest thing again my dear).
This early work about Lady Susan was created when Jane was 17 years of age. First published in 1871, it was written in the form of a series of letters within a circle of family and friends.
MY DEAR BROTHER, – ‘I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted of spending some weeks with you at Churchill’…says Lady Susan.
Then she goes on to inform her friend Alicia Johnson…where ‘… I must remain till I have something better in view’!
Filmed entirely on location in Ireland, director-writer Whit Stillman introduces Lady Susan Vernon onto the silver screen for the first time in the spectacularly beautiful looking film Love and Friendship.
Lady Susan has ‘an uncanny understanding of men’s natures’ and has learned brilliantly how to influence people and live off her own wits, without having any money at all.
While confronting for some of the audience at first, at least those surrounding me, it soon becomes obvious that perhaps it was an entirely necessary attribute for a woman to have acquired at that time if she didn’t want to find herself living in a field!
Women were certainly not supposed to talk about money, unless an estate such as their father’s had been settled on them, come to them from a husband who has died, or a kindly relative who put a value on their connection.
Jane Austen understood this world very well; she inhabited it herself, mixing with the highest-ranking families in the kingdom, while living a modest life in which her observations of real settings provided the raw ripe material for the writing style she developed so assiduously.
This is a film and a story that plays on all our emotions, which is why it can transcend both time and place.
The action takes place during the first twenty years of the nineteenth century, a colourful, turbulent and often seemingly romantic time, especially if we look at it through rose coloured glasses.
English life was in the process of rapid evolution, and it was a time when the cultivation of the mind was as important as the cultivation of wealth in a society where making a living for a woman by writing was indeed, something relatively new.
Love and Friendship is a very ‘stylish’ film, really and truly visually sumptuous. It is also one in which wearing a mask of deception is entirely celebrated, bit like a convention for modern day politicians.
The acting skills of the simply superb ensemble cast led by a truly splendid Kate Beckinsale, are totally sublime. I loved all the men, but most especially Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) whom I would have happily raced off myself. He certainly seemed to be having the time of his life as the deliciously rich and slightly dotty nobleman.
I would venture to say Lady Susan has not been an easy adaption from letters to live action, but director-writer Whit Stillman to my mind truly nailed it.
Goodness, the textiles used for the superlative costumes are truly ravishing and certainly suited the stunning period houses, churches, buildings and interiors of Ireland that he used to such great effect.
They filmed at Howth Castle, Newbridge House, Russborough House and in the gorgeous streets and squares of Georgian styled Dublin. I certainly wouldn’t have minded having some of the too divine furniture from Catherine’s room for taking ‘tea’ in my house!
While it would be possible to not have any sympathy or indeed empathy for the seemingly ferocious manipulative woman Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is at first, by the end its hard not to admire her. Witty, clever, gorgeous to look at with the most divine hairstyles and clothes, she’s certainly everyone’s new type of heroine.
The movie begins with her and her young adult daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) being dismissed from the country house of the most ‘desirable’ and ‘divine’ man in England, Mr Mainwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin). Lady Susan believes that he is the love of her life. The fact he already has a wife doesn’t really phase her.
Repairing to Churchill the home of her brother, the amiable and very generous Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and the sister in law she has never met Catherine DeCourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwell), Lady Susan fixates all her attention on her kind hostesses very available, although much younger brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). Who says Cougars are a modern invention! He’s a serious example of handsome eye candy as well.
Catherine is appalled at the idea they might make a match, seeing her brother as being far desirable for the lovely Frederica. She is everything amiable, modest, well mannered and surprisingly, sings like a nightingale.
The more they try to turn him from the path he seems set to walk, the more determined he becomes. He’s not put off at all about the rumours circulating polite society, highlighting Lady Susan’s infamous dalliances.
Catherine enlists the help of her delightful husband Charles and her parents as well, Lady DeCourcy (Jemma Redgrave) and Sir Reginald DeCourcy (James Fleet). She asks them all to admire the intelligence of Lady Susan, if they are to bring about a desirable end for all. She knows Lady Susan is not someone who suffers fools gladly.
This is a tantalizing look at how brilliantly Miss Austen’s mind was working hard at sorting out characters at a time when she was Frederica’s age, 17 in 1793.
She was the Queen of perceptions and showcases brilliantly in this, how often the real character of someone can be misjudged by others. My movie buddy started by believing she was a dreadful woman and by the end of it had revised her assessment completely.
Love and Friendship reveals how stylishly sophisticated Jane Austen was long before penning the novels we know and love so well; Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815) and Northanger Abbey (1817).
It may have seen a little disjointed towards the end, when you become aware the young Jane Austen is perhaps losing interest, not knowing where to take her characters next.
Perhaps this why she didn’t finish it or take it further, although it was not hard to recognise some of the characteristics of the heroes and heroines from this in her later and most famous of books.
Thank heavens for Whit Stillman however, he solves the puzzle and presents a suitable ending for Love and Friendship, one a mature Jane would have approved of and one that we can but only be happy with.
In true Jane Austen style, he leaves us asking for ‘more please’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
Watch the Trailer